50 years since Nixon’s pivot to China

First published by chinaworker.info, ISA in China

A half-century has passed since US President Richard Nixon’s ground-breaking visit to China on 21 February 1972. He was the first American president ever to visit China and no formal relations had existed between the two countries since China’s 1949 revolution.

Nixon, a Republican and sworn anti-communist, stayed in China for eight days, feted by Mao Zedong’s Stalinist regime. At home, the US president’s poll ratings soared seven percentage points during his visit. He returned to a “hero’s welcome” notes the Guardian. The president’s visit even spawned an opera.

The basis for this historic rapprochement was the desire of both the US and Chinese regimes to forge an alliance against their perceived main enemy, the Soviet Union. This process would reshape global politics. It widened the split in the Cold War’s Stalinist camp, the bureaucratic dictatorships that ruled over non-capitalist planned economies. And it prepared the ground, although this was delayed until after Mao’s death, for the social counter-revolution in China. After thirty years of Stalinist ‘socialism’, China transitioned from the late 1970s onwards to today’s form of authoritarian state-regulated capitalism under a regime ‘communist’ in name only.

Stalinism and nationalism

The Stalinist regimes, modeled on the extremely contradictory society that emerged in the Soviet Union, were a significant check on capitalism’s global power. But despite the claims of their ruling ‘communist’ officialdom, they were not socialist societies. Each national bureaucratic elite pursued a nationally blinkered agenda to maintain its own rule as parasitic millstones on the state-owned planned economy. This dictatorial nationalism formed the basis for the sharp conflict between the regimes in China and the Soviet Union, which Nixon and US imperialism successfully sought to exploit.

Nationalist power politics, rather than the internationalist approach of genuine Marxists, as shown by Lenin and Trotsky in the early years of the Russian Revolution, would see the Chinese regime (CCP) briefly and abortively invade ‘socialist’ Vietnam in 1979 in support of the ‘socialist’ Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, which was supported by both China (openly) and the US (covertly). Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said of the Cambodian regime: “They are murderous thugs but we won’t let that stand in our way.”

Today, on the 50th anniversary, the US and Western capitalist classes are reviewing Nixon’s China visit in the light of an accelerating Cold War 2.0 between the West and China/Russia. This is a military, economic and pseudo-ideological contest (‘democratic’ versus ‘autocratic’ capitalism) to decide which ruling class will dominate the capitalist world.

Many Western capitalist commentators are now critical, claiming Nixon’s China pivot, by drawing China into the world capitalist economy and facilitating its hyper growth into a major power, was ground zero for the current fierce US-China conflict. Others lament that global relations look starkly different today as an alliance between Chinese and Russian capitalism against the US appears to be solidifying.

Winter Olympics

At the start of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, Xi Jinping met with Vladimir Putin, in his first face-to-face meeting with a world leader for two years. The two presidents declared there are no “forbidden areas of cooperation” in their relationship. The meeting was designed to emphasize a common front against the US. It has been followed by official statements from Beijing backing Russia’s demand against further eastward expansion of NATO. Some Western commentators have dubbed this partnership a “new axis of autocracy”. There are rumours, denied by China, that during their discussions Xi asked Putin not to invade Ukraine during the Olympics, which wrapped up on 20 February.

The Russian and Chinese governments have overlapping geopolitical interests in their conflicts over Ukraine and Taiwan respectively, although in fact, the two issues are dissimilar in a number of important respects. Despite the need to show a common front, the Chinese regime would prefer the current Ukraine crisis to be defused without direct Russian intervention. Unlike when both were Stalinist regimes, when the Soviet Union was by far the dominant force, in today’s alliance it is Russia that is the “little brother”. This is especially in economic terms with China’s economy ranked second in the world (GDP 18 trillion dollars) and Russia ranked 11th (GDP 1.7 trillion dollars).

Other commentators are praising Nixon’s diplomacy for its “foresight”.

“What the West is doing now is the exact opposite of what Nixon did back then,” German author Adrian Geiges told the New York Times. “Russia and China are not natural partners. They are partners because of the common enemy — the United States and Western Europe.”

History offers important lessons for how global imperialist and great power relations can develop, shift, and erupt in new conflicts. It shows how complex these processes can be, requiring close scrutiny by Marxists to look behind the diplomatic phrases and media spin in order to discern the real political content and class interests of the various ruling groups.

Below is our article from July 2021 explaining the events that led to Nixon’s China pivot of 50 years ago.

1971: Kissinger’s secret visit to China

It’s 50 years ago since Henry Kissinger’s secret mission to China which led to a ground-breaking shift in US imperialism’s foreign policy and changed the course of history

Dahu, chinaworker.info (First published July 29, 2021)

“Eureka!” This was the one-word telegram sent to President Richard Nixon by his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger as the latter made his way back from top-secret talks with Chinese leaders on 9–11 July 1971. Kissinger’s visit had evidently gone very well from his perspective. His boss, a right-wing anti-communist warmonger, was playing for high stakes with these covert approaches to Mao Zedong’s Stalinist regime.

These talks led to a ground-breaking shift in US imperialism’s foreign policy. This eventually changed the course of history by laying the foundations for the most important global relationship of the past 30 years, that between the US and China, although that development and the meteoric rise of China as a capitalist power was far beyond the comprehension of Nixon, Mao, and their contemporaries.

Kissinger’s secret mission was hidden even from the US State Department and most members of Nixon’s cabinet. On an otherwise unremarkable visit to Pakistan, Kissinger feigned illness during an official dinner. Pakistan’s military ruler Yahya Khan was one of the few people in on the secret. Instead of taking Kissinger to a former British mountain retreat to recover — the official story — Khan’s private driver sped him to a military airport from where he flew to Beijing. The secrecy was due to the sensitivity of the proposed tilt towards China, which would inevitably face opposition from sections of the US establishment, especially the pro-Taiwan lobby in Nixon’s Republican Party. Nixon and Kissinger were also unsure if their approaches to China would succeed. But they did and on July 15 Nixon made a televised speech revealing that Kissinger had just returned from China and that the US president had been invited to Beijing the following year.

Even before Kissinger’s trip, extensive unofficial contacts had been made between the two sides to explore the possibility of a deal — “more than 100 secret meetings” according to presidential papers now made public. These discussions opened the way for the US men’s table tennis team to make a surprise tour of China in April 1971, giving rise to the term “Ping Pong diplomacy”.

Sino-Soviet split

Nixon’s meeting with Mao in February 1972 would be a huge PR success, boosting the president’s approval ratings. In polls, 70 percent of Americans approved of his China visit. Still, the process moved forward at a snail’s pace; the full normalisation of US-China relations would take seven more years, partly due to the instability of US politics: Nixon was brought down by the Watergate scandal in 1974.

Nixon’s visit paved the way for a historic deal between the US and China, forming the template for all US presidents until Obama, and especially Trump, when engagement with China was discarded in favour of containment and confrontation. In the 1970s, Nixon’s policy was a bold geopolitical gambit to split the Stalinist camp on a world scale. The US was fully aware of the deepening Sino-Soviet conflict, which had even erupted in a border war in 1969. The US ruling class knew it was losing the war in Vietnam and the Nixon-Mao détente was its strategy to regain the upper hand in the struggle against Stalinist Russia.

Thus, Mao and his successors played an important role in the eventual collapse of the USSR and global Stalinism, although this process would not be consummated for two more decades. The turn towards capitalism in China, which began under Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping, was also enormously facilitated by the economic and foreign policy ramifications of Mao’s rapprochement with US imperialism. This is something today’s ‘tankies’ and pro-CCP layers of the left don’t want to be reminded of — that the CCP helped bring down the USSR.

Taiwan: a deal-breaker

In 1971, the US was closely allied with Chiang Kai-shek’s dictatorship in Taiwan (‘Republic of China’) and at one point had 30,000 troops stationed on the island. A small contingent of Taiwanese military personnel was fighting on the US side in Vietnam. In the negotiations with Nixon and Kissinger, Mao and his premier Zhou Enlai drove a hard bargain. They wanted US technology, especially military technology, and trade concessions, which they got.

Mao’s regime was in crisis, dealing with the economic and political repercussions of the Cultural Revolution, itself a confirmation the bureaucratic system of Chinese Stalinism had reached a dead end. But the Chinese sensed the Americans were even more desperate for a deal. “To try to get the best deal, Kissinger — and, at times, Nixon — deployed high degrees of sycophancy,” noted historian Jonathan Fenby. In their meeting, Nixon praised Mao’s writings (!) while Mao replied that Nixon’s book Six Crises was “not bad”.

Both sides were cynically blunt in separating out their real power interests from their public posturing. Mao told Kissinger in February 1973, that both governments would need to criticise one another for a while. “You say, away with you Communists. We say, away with you Imperialists. Sometimes we say things like that. It would not do not to do that.”

Referring to their shared interest against Moscow, Mao remarked, “So long as the objectives are the same, we would not harm you nor would you harm us. And we can both work together commonly to deal with a bastard.” (from Nixon presidential papers).

The main sticking point in the negotiations was Taiwan. Here too, the US side essentially gave Mao’s regime what it wanted. Nixon was prepared to sacrifice Taiwan to reach a deal with China, which would more decisively further US global interests. Already in April 1971, Kissinger told Nixon, “It’s a tragedy that it has to happen to Chiang [Kai-shek] at the end of his life but we have to be cold about it.” The president agreed, “We have to do what’s best for us.” Among other things, this meant accepting Taiwan’s expulsion from the United Nations, where the ‘ROC’ was still recognised as the official government of China. US troops would also leave Taiwan and a diplomatic fudge — the ‘One China’ policy — would enable Mao’s regime to claim a significant diplomatic victory, while the US shifted to ‘unofficial’ ties with Taiwan, which has been its position ever since.

The UN vote took place in October 1971 and went 76–35 against Taiwan. The Taiwanese delegation walked slowly out of the UN Assembly for the last time. The US voted against expelling Taiwan and Nixon pretended to be angry with the result, but this was one of many instances of diplomatic subterfuge. In reality, secret assurances had already been given to the Chinese leaders and the US vote at the UN was just a performance — partly to placate pro-Taiwan Republicans like Ronald Reagan. US allies Britain, France and Canada voted with the majority to kick out Taiwan and give the UN seat to Mao’s China.

The Chinese regime’s pact with US imperialism was not an isolated case of putting narrow national and bureaucratic interests before the interests of the workers’ movement internationally, although it is the most eye-catching example. Having for years denounced “Soviet social imperialism” for its appeasement towards the West, the Chinese regime established diplomatic relations with Franco’s dictatorship in Spain, the Greek military junta, and Pinochet’s Chile after the bloody 1973 coup that crushed the left. In 1976, before Mao’s death, China intervened in the civil war in Angola on the same side as the US and apartheid South Africa.

China was active alongside the US in the 1980s covert war against Soviet forces in Afghanistan, even allowing the CIA to establish two electronic spying stations at Qitai and Korla in Xinjiang. Deng’s regime helped to train thousands of jihadi terrorists including many Uighurs — a dark chapter that demolishes the credibility of its current hardline stance against terrorism in Xinjiang. Today of course the world and the US-China relationship has been turned upside down. A new Cold War — a struggle of capitalist giants to “win the 21st Century” — has begun.

Stalinism and the Cold War

The first Cold War from 1945–91 was a geopolitical standoff between two fundamentally different social systems, capitalism and Stalinism. The USSR and after 1945, China and a succession of other ‘communist’ states rested on non-capitalist economic foundations. Marxists use the designation ‘Stalinism’ to describe these bureaucratic dictatorships, which used socialist rhetoric but were not socialist. Stalin’s dictatorship ruled over the degenerated remains of the great Russian Revolution of 1917. Capitalism had been erased, but the organs of workers’ democracy which existed under Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolshevik Party in the early years were successively eroded and crushed by the rise of a privileged bureaucracy, ‘communist’ in name only.

These were state-owned economies but they were planned in a top-down, wasteful, bureaucratic way. By politically repressing the working class and excluding it from economic and political decision-making, Stalinism (and Maoism) had no possibility of developing towards real socialism. Only an additional political revolution by the working class could have realised real socialism, taking control over the planned economy and thoroughly democratising society by abolishing the bureaucratic dictatorship.

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